Gary Jaffe | Crain's St. Louis

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Gary Jaffe

Background:  

St. Louis-based GL group, the parent company of Booksource, Turtleback Books and Jaffe Book Solutions, distributes and manufactures books, educational materials and other products to a client list that includes wholesalers, publishers, schools and libraries around the world. Gary Jaffe succeeded his father Sandy as CEO of the family-owned and operated company.

The Mistake:

Trying to emulate my father.

My dad is extremely good at working externally. People love him. He's knowledgeable about what they're doing and very excited about books. He's exceptional when it comes to networking. I was trying to emulate that.

I was around 25 and at a breakfast my father didn't attend. It was in an ocean-view room in Florida. I was sitting at a table with executives from the largest publishing houses in the United States — Random House, Simon & Schuster. These people were much older than me and they loved to read. The entire conversation was around books and I was a little lost. So I started looking out the window.

I don't know how this came out of my mouth, but I said, “Oh my God.” The conversation stopped. They all looked to me. I said, “I saw a dolphin.” When I saw the dolphin, I kind of forgot where I was and who I was with. They didn't add anything. They just kind of went on about their business.

It was at that moment I realized I've got to be who I am, not who I think I'm supposed to be, which is my father.

The Lesson:

It was a turning point because, when I got back to the hotel, I told my dad, “I'm an internal guy. I think I'm best suited for operations and I'm going to do my best to motivate, lead and manage our team operationally. I don't want any part of going to shows, doing the networking and all that. We'll have to figure out how we can still do that, but it's not going to be me.”

Within a year, so much within my life, my job and the company changed that my dad said, “That was the smartest thing you've ever done because now you're being who you are.” My brother Neil has taken on that external role and does an exceptional job. My focus is internal, and it's worked out for both of us.

Still, there are some areas where I may have been uncomfortable. For example, I was looking at our cash situation eight or nine years ago. We were in an end-of-year meeting with our accountant and bankers. The books showed we paid out about $90,000 in interest expenses because we never had money in the bank. The accountant said, “In a small- to medium-sized business, it's totally acceptable to have a $1 million loan or whatever as long as it's not getting out of hand and you're paying your bills on time.”

Personally, I pay off my credit card every month. So I put together a cash committee with a few executives, but also a few people who had control over some line items. I asked them to be much more specific about their approach. I wanted to monitor cash flow more closely and get them involved. The next year, we had money in the bank about four months. The following year, we had money in the bank every single month.

I got people to look at the numbers, understand the numbers and get to know the why behind them. It was getting people involved, because, if they're not, they don't know there's a problem and there's nothing they can do to solve it.

I’ve realized management is not about how much you know about a particular area, it's about how you rely on people, work with them and get them what they need. If you have the right attitude and approach, management is not about the processes. It always comes down to people.

Photo Credit: Beckie Guillot-Beinke, GL group and ie Images.

GL group is on Twitter at @GLgroup and Booksource is at @TheBooksource.

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